Whenever I discuss my work as a freelancer with my regularly employed friends (whom I also refer to as People With Normal Jobs), the conversation tends to gravitate around the concept of “how can anyone possibly live like that”, whereby “like that” is understood to mean “with no permanent contract, on a fluctuating income that depends on the quality and quantity of work available and the reliability of multiple clients”. The most pressing questions on that last point usually come from people who are considering a career as freelancers, but are unsure as to whether they will be able to make ends meet with no fixed income. After having accepted the idea of dealing with multiple clients at any given time, one needs of course to address all the other obstacles that stand in a freelancer’s way to their hard earned paycheck, such as rapidly changing industries, amateurs undercutting the market, scammers that try to wriggle out of paying you at the last moment and people expecting you to work of exposure – to which, of course, the only possible answer is “people die of exposure”. This post will answer all of your questions on the pressing matter of how to get paid as a freelancer, moving from the obvious steps all freelancers must take to prepare for their career, to the less obvious aspects that I have observed over the years. If you have further questions on the subject or if you happen to have different experiences in this field, do share them in the comments: I would love to get feedback and start a fresh discussion on this topic.
Don’t price yourself out of the market
Freelancer fees are a tricky business and – no matter how much experience you have gained in a certain field – you will find yourself googling the current rates from time to time. There is a delicate balance to be negotiated, in this respect, between deterring potential clients with excessive fees and undercutting the whole market by offering the lowest rates available. I don’t think I need to point out that the latter option is the mark of a poorly thought-through strategy, which will result in you having to take on more clients to pay the rent, thus reducing the amount of time and attention you can give to each client and producing mediocre results at best. Even the clients you do acquire by undercutting yourself will eventually desert you, as soon as they realise that they haven’t struck an amazing deal and they are, in fact, getting exactly what they paid for, i.e. very little. Once you have a reasonable idea of what the current market rates are for the specific services you are offering, however, you are no closer to actually being able to put a price tag on your time, particularly if you are just starting your freelancing career. If your services are priced in the same range as everyone else’s, why should clients pick you over someone with a wider portfolio, better references and more experience? This is the time to rethink your assets, specifically reconsidering what you think of as an asset. Your selling point, particularly if you are a beginner, should be unique and that usually means “not strictly work-related”. Why is that, I hear you ask? Because, unless you have just invented a new and revolutionary service the world is yet to hear about, nothing work-related is likely to be unique. Whether you are a translator, a social media manager, a ghost writer, a web designer or an app developer, your basic set of skills is likely to be relatively similar to that of other professionals in your field. In order to find something unique, you need to cast your mind around and look at the other aspects that are relevant to your life. What are you passionate about? What are the interests that you found it most difficult to share with your classmates and colleagues during the course of your education and training? Is there a community revolving around those interests? If so, that is the community you need to connect with before you do anything else. Are you a jazz-loving app developer? Look for your first client in the jazz community: they will love to work with someone who understands their specific needs. Are you passionate about ethical lifestyle choices? Look for worthy brands and offer to manage their social media.
If you have only just started, it’s ok to price yourself at the lower end of the accepted range, as long as you don’t compromise on the quality of your work.
Get everything down on paper
Working as a freelancer allows for a greater degree of flexibility than most positions in matters of hours and workflow, but this doesn’t mean it does not involve written agreements and contractual obligations. A contract is your safeguard against clients using your services and then disappearing without paying you, but there are more subtle aspects to it. Setting down the terms of your collaboration in a contract will prevent disputes over the specific services your client is entitled to expect, avoiding the kind of extenuating email exchange in which they hold back payment until you have done that extra thing that you never actually discussed, but they thought it automatically came with the website/translation/piece of content/marketing strategy you delivered. Most clients hiring a freelancer won’t have a contract ready for you to sign, so be prepared to provide your own. Depending on where you live and on the kind of service you provide, your activity may or may not be regulated by specific laws: make sure you research the legal framework of your activity before you start taking anyone’s money. Presenting a client with a contract to sign might not be an entirely smooth business and it might involve negotiating all the little extras that your client was going to mention down the line, as well as obvious things like deadlines, payments and responsibilities. You can find plenty of templates for this kind of written agreement online, but I warmly recommend you invest in the services of a legal professional, not only to have them draft contract templates for you, but also to give you a crash-course in how to enforce said contracts if clients try to get out of them, and to explain what demands should be negotiable and which ones shouldn’t.
Don’t work on other people’s pet projects
This is the tip I wish someone had given me when I started out as a freelancer. Remember what I said in the first paragraph about engaging with communities that share your passions? That’s still true of course, but I’d like to make it absolutely clear that you should appeal to the professionals in those communities, not the amateurs. Freelancing is mostly a B2B business, which means you will not be selling your services as a commodity to be consumed, but as part of a range of tools your clients will use within their own business. When you meet a potential new client, before you look into any other aspect of your future collaboration, you have to be absolutely certain that the business you are being contracted to support with your work is their core business and their number one priority. Make this simple test: does your client make a living out of the project they are asking you to work on? If so, go on. If not, get out of there right now, it’s a trap! Am I saying you should never work for a budding startup, a charity or a brand new enterprise whose founders still need to keep their day jobs? Well, let’s put it this way: if getting paid for it is really important for you, then no, you shouldn’t. Or, to put it in a slightly less blunt way, if your client’s livelihood does not depend on the success of the project, don’t stake yours on it. I don’t want to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, but it is a fairly accepted fact that if something is not a top priority, it runs a high risk of being sacrificed for something that is. This means that, if the project fails or does not provide any revenue for a long time, your client will be forced to neglect it to attend to their real job, the one that pays the bills. As a consequence, they might not be able to honour the terms of your contract. And if you were counting on that to pay your bills, you are going to be in trouble. They will be embarrassed and you might even try to enforce the terms of your contract, if you have one, but you may still end up not getting your money. If you happen to be working for a friend, a charity that you care about or any project you wish to be part of regardless of payment, there’s nothing wrong with waiving your fee. When it comes to accepting actual clients and making a living, however, you should always make sure they are as serious about the job as you are.